In the Spirit of

Years ago I attended a research seminar about surface catalysis, this one dealing with a study of how a particular chemical reaction occurred on a metal surface. Normally, at a seminar the researcher will talk for around 45 minutes, then have 10 minutes to field a couple of softball questions from people in attendance, then the seminar will be over and everyone will exit the room to have cookies and tea in the hallway.

But this time, the speaker was one of the world’s best-known scientists in the field of surface catalysis (he eventually won the Nobel Prize) and, it just so happened, that a couple of the other best-known surface catalysis scientists were in the audience. So, at the beginning, the host of the seminar got up in front of the audience, introduced the speaker and said, because several of the best minds in the field were all present in the same room, that rather than have just another run-of-the-mill question-and-answer session after the seminar, we would instead use this opportunity to have, among these men who so frequently challenge each other in writing, an open debate “in the spirit of the great old Oxford debating societies”.

So the speaker spoke and the Q-and-A session came. One of the other Big Names put his hand up to ask a question and the host selected him. He asked his softball question and the speaker answered it. Then, a few more people asked questions. The speaker answered them. Then everyone went out in the hallway to have cookies and tea, just like any other seminar.

I’ve recently become addicted to listening to the debates at Intelligence Squared US and the original UK version at IntelligenceSquared.com. (I’d recommend ‘Google Violates Its Don’t Be Evil Motto’ and ‘It’s Wrong to Pay for Sex’. Actually, I’d recommend basically all of them…) The debates follow the same basic format every time: there’s a resolution (a statement with which one could reasonably agree or disagree), two groups of experts who are selected to attack or defend the resolution and a host to keep everything civil and on-track. The speakers alternate, then there’s a question-and-answer session, and so forth.

The seminar I attended had some of those things: the host, the experts and the Q-and-A session, for example. But it had no resolution. No identified statement with which one could agree or disagree, and therefore nothing to debate about.

You see, it’s one thing to say that you want a debate to happen “in the spirit of the great old Oxford debating societies”, but having the spirit of the great old Oxford debating societies without the structure of the great old Oxford debating societies meant that the Q-and-A session at the seminar turned out to be identical to the ones at any other seminar.

The value of doing the same thing as you did last time and expecting there to be a different result this time, to me, is…well, debatable, and I don’t think it takes a gathering of the best minds in any field to see that.

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